Trekking The Havasupai Trail

Giovanna Dell'orto achieves a long-held goal of conquering a three-day Grand Canyon trail.

Framed by pitch-black canyon walls rising monumentally on either side of the rushing, rain-swollen Havasu Creek, the night sky burst with snow-white stars and Milky Way swirls.

It was the last night of a gruelling three-day Havasupai Trail round trip to the waterfalls in northern Arizona's Havasu Canyon, an offshoot of the Grand Canyon.

The hike offers bliss by way of blisters, far from the crowds.

I had promised myself that I would complete the hike ever since a dangerously under-planned attempt 13 years earlier ended barely 3km in. On horseback, a member of the Havasupai tribe which administers the area, spotted my vermilion face and half-bottle of water on a torrid summer afternoon and ordered me to go back.

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On my second attempt, I left the planning to six tireless students from Northern Arizona University's Outdoor Adventures. All I had to do was show up at the crack of dawn with my backpack on the pine-scented Flagstaff campus. (Universities throughout the country offer trips to a variety of outdoors destinations, open to the public at a steal. My US$360 ($460) fee covered pricey permits, exceptionally caring guides, most gear, all food including luxuries such as biscuits baked on the spot and fresh avocados and sprouts, and the eight-hour round-trip drive to the trailhead.)

Even though the mesa-top Hualapai trailhead is less than 48km as the eagle flies from tourist-thronged Grand Canyon Village inside the national park, it is 1307km away by car, mainly on deserted roads.

Tribal members heading home and hikers, not day trippers spilling out of buses, embark on this trail.

The vistas into the red and white infinity of rock formations, punctuated by unexpectedly green desert brush, are breathtaking. The first couple of kilometres of switchbacks, dropping 610m to a wash at the canyon floor, take away what little breath you might have left.

The village of Supai in Havasu Canyon can only be reached on foot, horseback or helicopter. Photo / Giovanna Dell'orto
The village of Supai in Havasu Canyon can only be reached on foot, horseback or helicopter. Photo / Giovanna Dell'orto >Share on Facebook >Share on Pinterest >Show more >Share on Facebook facebook >Share on Twitter twitter >Share via email email >Share on LinkedIn linkedin >Share on Google Plus google-plus >Share on Whatsapp whatsapp >Share on Pinterest pinterest >Share on Reddit reddit

Mercifully flat, the next 11km snake through gauntlets of smooth orangey-salmon ledges, along a cottonwood-lined stream and through tiny Supai village and its corrals of pack mules and horses - for the hikers who prefer not to stagger under a 13kg backpack.

About 3km after the village, I dumped my pack with a yelp, tore off the steaming boots mid-stride and waded into cooling waters right below Upper Navajo Falls, the first of many waterfalls cascading from red rocks into layered turquoise pools towards the Colorado River a few kilometres away.

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Woken up the next day before dawn by a ranger warning of flash floods, we splashed in the pools below Havasu and Mooney Falls, which bookend the long canyon campground.

A student leader talked me down nearly 61 vertical metres through slick rock-hewn tunnels and steps to the Mooney Pool. The swim under the powerful spray was worth the limb-shaking panic, followed by my first afternoon nap in years.

On the last day it was out by the same trail, from the shady creek-side paths to the unforgiving - and awe-inspiring - climb up the canyon walls back to the trailhead.

There, screaming calf muscles prevented me from standing upright - but not from marvelling one more time at the kaleidoscope of shades and colours unfolding in all directions, now under a full-blast sun.


Getting there:

Air New Zealand flies up to three times daily to Los Angeles from Auckland. Local carriers continue to Arizona. The start of the trail is Supai, four hours by car from Grand Canyon Village. Supai village can only be reached by helicopter, on horseback or on foot. If walking, it is not a day trip so stay at the campground by the falls or at the village lodge.

Details: Permits are required from

Havasupai Indian Reservation.


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